‘The 1619 Project’ Tells a False Story About Capitalism, Too

tags: slavery, history of capitalism, 1619 Project

Mr. Guelzo is a senior research scholar at Princeton University and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

The awarding of a Pulitzer Prize for commentary to the New York Times magazine’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of “The 1619 Project” will serve as an additional selling point as the Times and the Pulitzer Center (unaffiliated with the prize) seek to market their 1619 Project Curriculum. It’s hard not to see the prize as an attempt to deflect the criticisms the paper has taken from historians across the country.

Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor, waved away those objections as differences of “interpretation and intention, not fact” in a letter responding to a dozen concerned historians, including me. Historians do argue over interpretations, but parts of the 1619 Project are sloppy, at best, with the facts. Consider the essay on capitalism by sociologist Matthew Desmond.

Mr. Desmond asserts that Americans live in an environment of “low-road capitalism,” a “peculiarly brutal economy” where “inequality reigns and poverty spreads.” The fountain from which a “uniquely severe and unbridled” capitalism springs is not Adam Smith or even the Robber Barons, but the cotton plantation, Mr. Desmond claims. There, in the American South, enslaved laborers produced “the nation’s most valuable export.” Their productivity created “a capitalist economy.”

Slaves were whipped and tortured into clearing fields, planting and harvesting crops whose yields increased, Mr. Desmond writes, by 400% over the 60 years before the Civil War. But Mr. Desmond also contends that every aspect of the plantation was ruthlessly rationalized to enhance profits, “via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification.” Those “management techniques” became a model for “a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity.” Slavery’s “violence was neither arbitrary nor gratuitous,” but instead “rational, capitalistic.”

Yet the numbers do not substantiate this thesis. 

Read entire article at Wall Street Journal

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